Surprisingly, the Senate Is Now in Play

I have argued repeatedly that while the House is up for grabs — and indeed likely to flip to the Democrats in November — the Senate is not in play. I now believe that it is, so I must revise and extend my remarks.

Only about three weeks ago, I reiterated my view that Democrats didn’t have a path to a net gain of two Senate seats, which they need for a chamber majority. But a flurry of state and national polls conducted over the past few weeks suggest Democratic prospects have improved noticeably, giving the party a difficult but discernible route for control.

Democrats are at least even money to flip two GOP-held Senate seats in November — Arizona and Nevada. Both races are very competitive, but President Donald Trump’s problems, the midterm dynamic and the two states’ fundamentals — Trump lost Nevada and barely carried Arizona — surely give Democrats a narrow but clear advantage in both states.

Months ago, I acknowledged a long-shot Democratic opportunity in Tennessee, largely because of the reputation of their high-quality nominee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen. But I didn’t take Bredesen’s chances against the Republican nominee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, seriously given the state’s partisan bent and Trump’s strong showing there two years ago.

I’m still skeptical about Bredesen’s prospects, but recent polls show that the race is for real. I can no longer simply dismiss his chances.

Unlike some, I still have trouble imagining Rep. Beto O’Rourke upsetting Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. But Trump’s problems in some suburban areas of Texas in 2016 and his upcoming trip to the state to boost Cruz’s prospects certainly suggest that the Lone Star State should be on the radar. The challenger is still a distinct underdog, of course, but the race deserves some attention.

Democratic edge

Two vulnerable Democratic incumbents — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — now appear to be narrowly ahead in their races.

West Virginia GOP nominee Patrick Morrisey is a relatively weak challenger, but GOP insiders warn that the state’s demographics and Trump’s strength there mean it’s too early to count the challenger out. Still, there is little doubt that Manchin currently has the edge in the contest.

Donnelly led GOP businessman Mike Braun by 6 points in a recent NBC News/Marist survey, and if the Democrat votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, as many expect, it could be enough to prove the senator’s “independence” to swing voters and even some Republicans.

Braun must raise the incumbent’s negatives and rally Republicans behind his effort to get some momentum.

Republicans believe Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin remains vulnerable and cite a recent Marquette poll that showed Baldwin’s lead within the margin of error. But other polls have found Baldwin in much better shape, and the state Supreme Court race earlier this year, as well as Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s weak poll numbers, confirm that the Badger State is a problem for the GOP. Any midterm breeze helping the Democrats should keep the Senate seat in their column.

In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester remains ahead, though Republicans note Trump’s strong following in the state. Tester’s re-election got off to a strong start, but GOP insiders hope that the president can rally his supporters behind challenger Matt Rosendale, the state auditor.

Good for GOP?

If those were the Republicans’ best prospects for takeover, Democrats would indeed have reason for great optimism. But three other Democrat-held seats are at the greatest risk, which still make the Democratic task of winning the Senate very difficult.

Veteran handicappers agree North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is in serious trouble, though they don’t yet agree with Republicans who think the race is essentially over. Heitkamp is again running a good race, but her Republican challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, doesn’t have the baggage that her 2012 opponent did, and even her admirers worry that the state may be too Republican, too conservative, too white, too rural and too pro-Trump for her to win another term.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Bill Nelson and his Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, are running even in two recent statewide surveys, while Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and her opponent, GOP state Attorney General Josh Hawley, are tied at 47 percent in a recent NBC News/Marist survey.

Trump carried Florida very narrowly but won Missouri by almost 19 points.

Nelson, 75, was first elected to the Florida House in 1972, and he has run for office repeatedly in the ensuing 45 years.

McCaskill, 65, was first elected to the Missouri Legislature in 1982. She rode a Democratic wave to the Senate in 2006 and was surprisingly re-elected six year later when the GOP nominated a weak challenger.

Neither Democrat has the statewide strength of Manchin or Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, but so far, they are holding their own.

It’s likely that the midterm dynamic is a major factor in the closeness of those races.

Scott is over-performing among Hispanic voters now, and his deep pockets may be enough to help him squeeze out a narrow win. But it is also possible that a strong African-American turnout (to support Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum) and Republican midterm problems among seniors and college-educated white suburbanites could benefit Nelson.

The GOP’s 5-point advantage in the generic ballot question in Missouri and Trump’s strength in the state are obvious problems for McCaskill, as are her already high personal negatives. But even with those liabilities, she is hanging in against Hawley.

The good news for the GOP is that it still has many opportunities to oust Democratic senators. The bad news is that a handful of those targets look worse off now than six or 12 months ago, while the Democrats have added a race or two worth watching.

Republicans remain upbeat about their chances, and they should be. They are still more likely than not to retain control of the Senate. Democrats need almost everything to go right to net two seats.

But during wave elections, tight Senate contests often all fall in the same partisan direction — and if Tennessee, Florida and Missouri do just that, there is a certainly a path for Democrats. It’s just a very narrow and rocky one.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on September 12, 2018.

Is the Senate Up for Grabs Yet?

President Donald Trump’s problems continue to mount, raising more questions about turnout and how independent voters and college-educated women will vote. But the Senate map remains daunting for Democrats, and the polarized nature of our politics continues to limit Democrats’ Senate prospects.

While handicappers generally label Nevada as a toss-up and the early polls are tight, the Democratic nominee, Rep. Jacky Rosen has an edge over incumbent Republican Dean Heller in a state that went narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In Arizona’s open seat contest, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has been the de facto Democratic Senate nominee for months, while Republicans have had a lively three-way primary. The frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Rep. Martha McSally, is a quality candidate, but her party is divided. Trump carried the state only narrowly two years ago, and his standing among the older, more affluent voters of metropolitan Phoenix certainly has not improved.

Sinema’s lead would narrow if Republican voters coalesce around McSally, but the Democrat has better overall positioning in the race and the edge in the race.

Republicans remain nervous about Tennessee, where the Democratic nominee, popular former Nashville Mayor and Gov. Phil Bredesen has a good reputation and appeal to independents and swing voters. Even Democrats are pleasantly surprised that Bredesen has been such a good candidate so far. But GOP nominee Marcia Blackburn is an aggressive campaigner, and the state’s strong Republican bent — Hillary Clinton drew only 35 percent of the vote — should eventually give her a boost. Bredesen probably has a slight edge now, but the state’s partisan landscape means he still has an uphill climb.

Finally, in Texas, some Democrats believe their challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, is now a serious threat to incumbent GOP SenTed Cruz. The Democrat’s fundraising has been stunning, and recent polls from Quinnipiac and NBC News/Marist show the Republican incumbent with only a single-digits lead. But Cruz is at 49 percent in both surveys, and all of the other poll numbers suggest it will be all but impossible for O’Rourke to pull off an upset. Republican don’t seem very worried at all.

So, Democrats find themselves in virtually the same place they did months ago — needing to re-elect all or almost all of their incumbents up for re-election in November.

That was a tall, tall order six months ago, and it is a tall, tall order today.

A few of the 10 states that went for Trump in 2016 and have Senate races this cycle are not worth much attention. Democratic incumbents are expected to retain their seats easily in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Sherrod Brown looks to be comfortably ahead in Ohio.

While a recent Marquette poll put Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin and Republican challenger Leah Vukmir in a near dead heat, other polling (non-public) suggests that Baldwin has a double-digit lead over her opponent. Given the problems of GOP Gov. Scott Walker, it’s likely that Baldwin has a comfortable advantage in this Senate contest and that even if the race narrows, the Democrats should hold onto this seat.

In Montana, which Trump won by 20 points, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester continues to have a solid lead, and the GOP challenger, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, isn’t one of his party’s top challengers. Even Democrats figure that the contest will close as November approaches, but for now Tester looks like he has a clear advantage.

That leaves five states that will likely decide Senate control. Democrats need to hold all of them, or “only” four out of five, depending on how other races fall .

The Democrats’ best chance of the five is West Virginia, a state that went for Trump by 42 points and gave Hillary Clinton only 26.4 percent of the vote. Incumbent Joe Manchin III’s numbers are holding steady in recent polling, and he has a surprisingly comfortable lead over GOP challenger Patrick Morrisey, the state’s attorney general. Republican attacks are likely to erode some of Manchin’s strong personal numbers, and the ballot test should close, but the Democrat is a well-known and well-liked figure in the state, and he has so far succeeded in swimming against the state’s Republican tide. Morrisey is a mediocre candidate.

The Republicans’ best chance is in North Dakota, which Trump carried by 35 points two years ago. Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp is a strong campaigner, but the state’s profile — heavily rural, heavily Republican and heavily white — puts her in a hole against challenger Kevin Cramer, the state’s at-large GOP congressman.

Nathan Gonzales’ Inside Elections moved the race to tilting Republican in July, reflecting the challenges Heitkamp faces. This race certainly isn’t over, but the Democrat’s struggle looks uphill.

The three remaining races, Indiana, Missouri and Florida, are all toss-ups and close according to recent polling. Trump carried Indiana and Missouri by 19 points each, while Florida was a squeaker.

Of the three, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly may have the best prospects given voters’ views of his values and personal traits.

We should see some movement in all of these races after Labor Day, as the campaigns fully engage and the parties decide where to put their remaining dollars.

A blunder here or there could affect a race, and national news could impact who votes and what message they send in November. But at this point, Republicans have every reason to feel confident about the likelihood that they will keep the Senate in November. Only a substantial national Democratic wave would seem to threaten that outcome.

The column originally appeared in Roll Call on August 24, 2018.

GOP Senate Targets Fade From View

When this election cycle began, handicappers repeatedly pointed out that 10 Democratic Senate incumbents from states carried by Donald Trump would be on the ballot in 2018. That count was accurate, and the point behind it obvious — Republicans had a long list of opportunities.

But now even the most partisan Republicans are acknowledging that the list of serious targets is shrinking to five or six states. Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota and Florida are certainly in play, but how are the other competitive Senate races holding up?

Michigan

Michigan was never going to be more than a footnote in the list of Republican Senate opportunities this cycle, and it still looks like a snoozer.

Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow isn’t very controversial, and Trump’s razor-thin 11,000-vote margin (two-tenths of a percentage point) looks like a fluke rather than a sign the state is realigning.

The state’s filing deadline passed a couple of weeks ago, and two GOP hopefuls who have never held office will fight it out for their party’s nomination in an August primary. Neither party is spending in this race, and nobody is taking the general election in Michigan seriously at this point.

Pennsylvania

Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania by seven-tenths of a point — about 44,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast. Unlike Michigan, where Republicans will pick between two political neophytes, the Keystone State GOP has two officeholders in the May 15 Senate primary: state Rep. Jim Christiana and Rep. Lou Barletta.

Barletta served as mayor of Hazleton before winning election to Congress in 2010. He has been re-elected three times and has earned a reputation as a leading critic of illegal immigration and a loyal Trump supporter.

Incumbent Democrat Bob Casey served as state auditor and state treasurer before being elected to the Senate in 2006. He has a reputation as someone who connects with working-class voters — just the kind of voters who defected to Trump and whom Democrats need to win back.

The recent special election in southwestern Pennsylvania was terrible news for Trump loyalists, and any midterm election drag is likely to put the Senate race beyond reach for Barletta, no matter how effusively Trump promotes the Republican congressman. As in Michigan, the parties are not spending money in Pennsylvania, and the Senate race doesn’t look very exciting.

Wisconsin

Republicans have a lively Senate race underway in Wisconsin, pitting state Sen. Leah Vukmir against businessman Kevin Nicholson, and outside groups have already spent heavily to damage Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. But there is growing pessimism among Republicans that they can defeat one of the Senate’s more liberal members.

As in the Keystone State, Trump won Wisconsin by seven-tenths of a point. But Democrats recently won a state Senate special election and an election to fill a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, suggesting that the Trump coalition is shrinking or that Democratic voters are energized. Either way, it’s not good news for the president’s party in the Badger State.

Baldwin’s numbers are surprisingly strong, in part because Democratic numbers in the northern part of the state have bounced back. I wouldn’t ignore the Senate race, but it isn’t nearly as competitive as Republicans had once hoped and Democrats had once feared.

Ohio

Given Trump’s 450,000-vote victory in Ohio, you might think the GOP is awash in confidence about Rep. James B. Renacci’s prospects of kicking Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown out of office. They’re not.

Brown is a liberal firebrand, but on tariffs, trade and working-class issues, he was Trump before Trump. The populist Democrat is a strong campaigner who relishes attacking. He isn’t likely to get a lot of Republican votes, but he’ll win back many Democrats (and independents) who defected to Trump in 2016.

This race is getting surprisingly little buzz, which reflects the lack of real Republican optimism about November.

Montana

Finally, Republicans aren’t as upbeat about their chances of ousting Montana Sen. Jon Tester as you might think. Of course, now that Trump has targeted Tester for leading the change against Dr. Ronny Jackson, the president’s former choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, that could change. And Montana is still a very “red” state.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the state in 2016, so Tester certainly can’t take his re-election for granted. GOP veterans of Capitol Hill note that unlike some vulnerable Democrats, Tester isn’t worrying about establishing his independence or proving that he is open to Trump’s leadership. Instead, he is opposing the president consistently.

Democrats worry that Tester can be a little headstrong, but they note that the senator has a great brand in his state and the likely GOP nominee isn’t all that intimidating. The Republican field in the race includes former judge and onetime state Rep. Russ Fagg, state Auditor Matt Rosendale (the favorite), a state senator and a businessman.

Of course, Montana still is a competitive contest that should be treated as a serious Republican takeover opportunity. But given the incumbents and the cycle, the Democrats probably have a narrow advantage in both Montana and Florida. Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia remain much better GOP takeover opportunities.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 3, 2018.

It’s a Blue House Wave, But Not Yet a Senate One

The odds are greater than half we will take back the Senate.” — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Monday night 

Democrats ought to temper their optimism about the fight for the Senate this year.

Yes, Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama’s special election gives their party a path to a Senate majority in November. But at this point, it remains an unlikely path, despite the official party line.

Even assuming Senate seats in both Arizona and Nevada fall to Democrats — not a certainty, but more likely than not — Republicans can maintain control of the Senate by swiping a Democratic seat in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota or one of the half-dozen other states carried by Donald Trump in 2016.

Republicans don’t need to win all those states or most of them or even some of them. They need only one, unless another GOP-held seat comes into play.

While Democratic strategists are trying to flip the House by targeting districts Hillary Clinton carried and seats where minorities, younger voters and suburbanites are anti-Trump, Senate Democratic strategists must hold on to a handful of rural, religious, conservative and very white states to have any chance of flipping the Senate. That’s quite a challenge.

Democratic incumbents in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states with diverse electorates, appear to be in good shape. Trump carried both states very narrowly, and greater Democratic unity and enthusiasm during the midterms should help the party retain those Senate seats.

Tougher races

The outcome in Wisconsin is less certain, since Republicans and Democrats disagree about Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s vulnerability.

On one hand, Trump carried the state very narrowly (with 48 percent of the vote), and Baldwin has proved her mettle.

On the other hand, the state is certainly competitive, Baldwin is among the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, and Gov. Scott Walker and the state GOP know how to win nasty, hard-fought statewide races. One Republican insider praised his state party effusively, calling it among the best in the country.

My own view is that the state’s battle lines are already drawn and a relatively small number of persuadable voters in the middle will decide the election’s outcome.

That said, any Democratic wave is likely to hurt GOP prospects here, so I’d be surprised if Baldwin loses. But the race certainly bears watching.

That leaves control of the Senate up to seven states, only one of them a 2016 nail-biter: Florida. Two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott has personal wealth, and that would make him a threat to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term.

But Trump carried Florida with 49 percent, winning by just 1.2 points, and events over the last year are likely to cost the Republicans support, especially with suburbanites, African-Americans, Haitian-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic voters. Scott is likely to run but has not yet announced his plans.

Trump carried Ohio with almost 52 percent, and his 8-point victory margin was large for the swing state. GOP Rep. James B. Renacci just jumped into the race after state Treasurer Josh Mandel dropped out.

Democrats can’t take this seat for granted, but incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown is a fierce campaigner. His blue-collar populism should win back some Trump voters, and likely strong Democratic turnout gives him the advantage.

Trump won Montana much more comfortably (with 56 percent), but the GOP field against Sen. Jon Tester is uninspiring.

Tester is another terrific campaigner, which gives him the edge.

Four toss-ups

Even if they hold all those seats, Democrats are left with four terribly difficult states to defend: Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Trump carried West Virginia by 42 points (69 percent to 27 percent) and North Dakota by 36 points (63 percent to 27 percent).

Those are huge mountains that Sens. Joe Manchin III and Heidi Heitkamp must climb, and each will have to attract thousands of Trump voters to win re-election in two increasingly polarized and partisan states.

Of course, those two Democrats, as well as Maine Republican Susan Collins, have run well ahead of unpopular presidential nominees before.

Collins ran 21 points ahead of GOP nominee John McCain in Maine in 2008, while in 2012 Manchin ran 25 points ahead of President Barack Obama in West Virginia, and Heitkamp more than 10 in North Dakota.

It’s also true that Heitkamp and Manchin are both strong campaigners who have built up personal relationships with voters in lightly populated states. (Democrats Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad, who recently held both North Dakota Senate seats, did the same thing.)

The two final states, Missouri and Indiana, may be the most challenging tests for the Democrats.

Trump carried each with 57 percent of the vote. But these larger states are more difficult for incumbents to personalize. Indiana’s Joe Donnelly is a quality candidate, and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill has found a way to win twice when she was not expected to, but both are in office now because their 2012 opponents were inept.

This time, Republicans will have strong nominees in both states — Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri and one of three Indiana Republican hopefuls, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita and former state Rep. Mike Braun.

A Democratic sweep of all 10 races would be remarkable. It’s certainly true that in wave elections all of the competitive Senate races tend to fall in one direction.

Democrats didn’t take away a single Republican seat in 1994 or 2010, and the GOP didn’t swipe a single Democratic Senate seat in 2006.

But none of those years had a Senate map like this one.

For Senate Democrats, the problem is clear — increased Democratic enthusiasm among younger voters, minorities and highly educated suburbanites will help their nominees nationally but not in states like West Virginia, North Dakota or Montana.

So, while the House of Representatives is increasingly at risk in November, the Republican Party’s Senate majority still looks very formidable. At some point this cycle, that chamber may well be “in play.” But it is not there yet.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on Januart 17, 2018.